There's more we need to know before going to war

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Stephen Harper's heritage minister, Shelly Glover, says the Islamic State "are people who are violent and brutal and they have decapitated journalists, they have raped and brutalized women. That is all we need to know…" in order to start bombing. With respect, let me suggest what else we might need to know.

Harper himself, who's been channelling his inner Churchill ("when we think something is necessary and noble we don't sit back and let others do it"), lacks Churchill's direct experience of war. When he was young, in Sudan, Churchill felt the "exhilaration" of being shot at and missed. He didn't experience the obverse (being killed) but that's what made a lot of upper-class Brits effective officers and war-makers: their snobby sense of invulnerability.

This is a different era and I don't know what replaces exhilaration: pomposity and self-congratulation perhaps? Because this is an age, at least for "our" side, of war without risk and even without fear. The "war" on Libya was the model: no casualties for us, though vast chaos throughout the region due to us.

The Islamic State has no air force or air defence systems and all our brave allies have signed up strictly for the bombing. So when Tory MP Laurie Hawn says Canada "stands up when standing up needs to be done," he actually means flying far above. As for drones, they're run by people in air-conditioned rooms continents away. The result is we lack any direct way to know how our attacks affect ordinary people on the ground there, quite apart from the Islamic State's homicidal maniacs.

Already the UN and the U.S. have acknowledged civilian casualties from U.S. attacks, including Syrian "women and children being hauled from the rubble after an errant cruise missile destroyed a home for displaced civilians." The U.S. admitted that even the porous protocols imposed to prevent civilian deaths from drone strikes elsewhere won't apply to Syria and Iraq. Since we lack any platform from which to see, much less empathize with, the population under the bombs -- civilians or military -- we're forced to make thought experiments.

So imagine being a villager. From high overhead, others are raining Hellfires, literally, on you. You can't see them but you know they don't look like you or speak your language, and care only in the most abstract way. Then along come the Islamic State thugs. They look and talk like you. They're brutal but they create some administrative order, after the chaos of invasion and civil war: 3 million to 5 million people in Iraq and 9 million in Syria displaced due mainly to U.S. military operations since 9/11. It's an awful choice between those two forces but it may not be a hard one.

Now consider the local military, like the Iraqi soldiers ridiculed for melting away before a far smaller Islamic State force. U.S. representative from Florida Alan Grayson, my favourite congressman, says no amount of training "will make them want to put their head into the meat-grinder called 'war'." Iraqis join their army for the "steady income" and a chance to "steal whatever you get your hands on ... It has nothing to with shooting people" or getting shot. If that sounds shabby, he adds that U.S. forces have "gotten very good at killing without dying." Their death rate in Iraq or Afghanistan was just above the rate for the U.S. population as a whole. But for "Iraqis who counterattack against ISIS, it's roughly the same as the death rate from Ebola."

Now add the U.S. plan to "vet" Syrians they're going to train and arm. How will that play on the ground? The nation that brought on the chaos of the last decade and is now bombing us will select those to lead us in the future. ISIS must welcome each component of this strategy, piece by piece. It's the recruitment toolchest they dreamed of when they posted those videos. They're merciless, not stupid. The western response gives them exactly what they want.

That, Shelly Glover, is why there's more we need to know than the beheadings and rapes. Doing nothing can be better than doing something that's stupid, counterproductive and self-destructive -- wise advice Barack Obama offered to himself mere weeks ago, and which he now seems to have forgotten.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: AK Rockefeller/flickr

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